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Luddite Spring: 53 - Starkey And Gladstone

Ronnie Bray continues his epic story of hardship and unrest in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Starkey and Gladstone entered the Pack Horse Inn shoulder to shoulder through the door that opened into pack Horse Yard, one of the town’s main thoroughfares.

“Well, met, eh, Harold?” said Gladstone as they jostled good naturedly through the portal.

“Just so, lad,” replied the carrier. “Are you having a pot of stew?”

“I believe the weather justifies a bowl of stew and dumplings, unless I am mistaken.” Gladstone sat down on one side of a small table against the back wall, while Starkey arranged himself opposite.

“You’re not mistaken, Job. This is dumpling weather. We need something that will stick to our ribs and ward off the bitter cold. The smell of the town is bad enough, but when it takes to freezing a body as well as stenching him to death, then hot stew and dumpling is about the only remedy left.”

They called their orders at the bar and waited. When the room’s blazing fire had warmed them enough, they unbuttoned and removed their great coats and let them fall over the backs of their chairs.

“Bad do, eh, Harold?” murmured Gladstone. “Terrible goings on!”

Starkey struggled to find the frame of reference for his friend’s cryptic remark.

“Bad do? What’s a bad do, eh?”

“It sounds as if you’ve not heard, then, Harold.” He drew a newspaper from his jacket pocket, opened it and, jabbing a finger at its front page, said, the workhouse.

“Do you mean the Andover scandal where men were killed fighting over a bone with a rotting scrap of meat on it?”

“No,” said Gladstone shortly. “I mean the goings on at the workhouse at Birkby here in Huddersfield.”

“Why? What’s going on there?”

“Let me read what the paper says.”

“If you’re not going to take all night. I shall have my supper afore me shortly.”

“I’ve no doubt that your supper and your ale will be sat before you before I get out more than a few words, but you attend to your nourishment while I make a report over your eating. You will hear better if you don’t slurp your gravy!”

“Carry on, I’m listening.”

The landlord placed two jugs of brown ale and two steaming bowls of heroic size containing Lancashire Hot Pot before the pair. Gladstone pretended not to notice his supper, while Starkey set about his meal with a will.

“Listen, Harold.” He proceeded, reading to his friend while his friend attacked his stew and dumplings.

“It’s called the Huddersfield Workhouse Report. It starts off by saying that the ratepayers of Huddersfield resisted the founding of a workhouse in the town.”

“I should think they did,” said Starkey, wiping his chin on his sleeve. “It’s just more cost to those that already pay high rates, and it’s for the benefit of those that will not work and don’t pay any rates at all!”

“Be fair, Harold. If there is no work then it stands to reason that some cannot find work, even if they are willing and bale to work. It’s not their fault they end up in the poor house.”

“They could find work if they wanted to,” insisted Starkey. “They just don’t want to. They’d rather someone else look after them and their children than do it themselves.”

“Have you ever been in a poor house?” asked Gladstone.

“No, and I don’t want to. You’ll not get me in one of them places”

“No one can tell the future, Harold. If you were to lose everything and no one else could or would help you, where would you turn for help?”

Starkey though hard about his friend’s question for a minute and then offered, “Well, wherever it was I wouldn’t be the workhouse!”

“You didn’t answer my question. You avoided it. But just you think where you could go if no one else but the poor law were ready to help you and stop you from starving to death in the street.”

“Well, then, if no one else would and I had no cash and no family to bear me up, then I suppose I’d be forced to the workhouse.”

“Yes,” retorted Gladstone, “and you’d be in the same boat as those already there. They’re not there because they are feckless, but because they are down on their luck. There’s the difference. I know it’s common for folks to think that only the lazy and feeble minded go to into them places, but you need to know how you’d be treated if you did end up in there. Are you just a bit curious? I have the details here.” He rustled his newspaper at his friend.

“I can’t say that I’m all that interested. I expect they are treated as well as any others are. What do you think?”

“I think that if it came to a choice between dying on the street from starvation and dying in the poor house I’d choose to die in the street. There’s more dignity dying where people can see how you die.”

“Hold on, Job. Do you realise what you’re saying? Who in their right mind would rather die on the street than in a place where they are cared for?”

“That’s just it, Harold,” said Gladstone. “They should be cared for in the workhouses, but they are not!”

“Your stew is getting cold, Job, lad. You’d best eat it before it freezes your gullet!”

Gladstone ignored the invitation to dine. He was just getting into his stride. “The reason we have workhouses is that there is need of institutions that care for the unemployed, the indigent, the sick, and the dying that have no food or shelter, or any means of getting the relief that would keep them from dying in the streets of the town.”

“Well, Job, we’ve got them, and I suppose they are good for those that need them. They must do what they’re supposed to do or else people wouldn’t keep packing themselves into them.”

“Those places don’t work. They are horrific places.”

“How are they horrific?”

“According to this report,” said Gladstone in his best reading voice,
“the manner in which the sick are, and have been, treated in the Huddersfield workhouse, in cruelty and disgrace surpasses the horrors that earned for the Andover workhouse such an unenviable notoriety, and having learned the facts connected with the question of medical relief for the township, as exemplified by the case of the Town’s Medical Officer who, for the last four years, has been fighting the battle of the poor against niggardliness and parsimony.”

“That’s all very well, Job,” interrupted Starkey, “but it’s nothing more than a lot of words with no cases to prove what is claimed against the workhouse.”

“If it’s facts you want … “

“It is. A case with no facts in it is no case at all. It’s just more Radical hot air!”

“Doctor Tatham is no Radical, Harold. He is a man of medicine dedicated to caring for the sick. And he has seen to it that a committee has investigated the workhouse and their report, the one I’m trying to read from, has more facts than a herd of donkeys has legs!”

“Right, then, Job. I’m ready for some facts. Do your best.”
Gladstone folded back his newspaper to the body of the report and picked out from here and there the salient facts of which Tatham and the Committee complained.

“Let me see. Yes. Listen to some facts, Harold. It says here, ‘The Overseer’s Report was scandalous in its exposé of neglect and indifference to suffering humanity. I’ll only read some of the main points, otherwise you will complain that I am becoming soft on the poor!”

“As you will. My supper’s almost finished. Then, I’ll sup my ale as you read your list.”

Undeterred by his friend’s low sarcasm, Gladstone searched for the salient points of the report and read them to his companion.

“It says that the sick poor have been most shamefully neglected. That inmates are wanting of clothing and bedding, that they remain for weeks in the most filthy and disgusting state, and that patients in the hospital wing have been allowed to remain for as long as nine weeks without a change of clothing or of bed linen.”

“That doesn’t seem right, Job. Not even for poor folk. I thought they would have treated them better than that.”

“Not only that,” continued Gladstone, “but the very beds in which patients suffering from typhus have died, one after another, have been repeatedly used for fresh patients, without any change of bedding or attempts at purification. It goes on to say that in any case whet the workhouse calls beds are nothing but sacks of straw and wood shavings, and that for the most part they are laid right on the floor, and that the whole of them were swarming with lice.”

“That’s bad, Job, I’ll agree. Maybe they are short of money and can’t do any better.”

“I’d say they could do a whole lot better. Listen, it goes on to say that,
‘living patients have been kept in the same bed with dead corpses for a considerable period after the one had died. You don’t need money to take away a rotting corpse from the side of a living man or woman!’”

“That’s for sure. It reeks of neglect. There can be no excuse for then even if they are poor. What else does it say?”
“It says the poor sick creatures were so weak that they sometimes passed their body waste in their bedding, they are suffered to remain befouled in their excrement, for days on end, and not washed.”

“That’s disgusting. Mind you, it’s no worse than a lot of slum dwellers do to themselves. The stench from their houses will tell you that. When you get whole lumps of slums packed together, then it’s unbearable.”

“But you will agree that such conditions ought not to prevail in an institution that is on the town rates?”

“No doubt about that. But, if the money’s not being spent on the inmates, where is it being spent?”

“It seems that the superintendent is buying necessary supplies to keep patients alive, but using them to keep himself and his friends alive! In other words, he’s spending the money on himself and depriving sick folk of such necessities as wine that perks them up and helps them fight disease. He is stealing from the dying.”

“I’d no idea that such things happened. I always had the impression that those in the workhouses were better kept than those of us that choose not to go in it.”

“Well, I believe that a great many like you have been misinformed. That’s why paupers that have to submit to the workhouse are so ill thought of. However, when the truth is given an airing we see that things are not as they are represented to us.”

“Why is that, do you think? Why do they fail to tell things as they really are?”

“People that lie and benefit therefrom always have something to hide. The superintendent and his staff have been found out. He must hate the poor to treat them so. It is inhumane. If there is a vital change wanted in Old Albion it is in the ways the poor are regarded and dealt with.”

“I’ve heard it said many a time that God made the poor and intended them to be treated hard, so it is only honouring the will of God to ensure that they are.”

Gladstone had heard the same sentiment time and again, but he had never subscribed to it.

“I’ve heard the same thing, Harold. I have heard it from the mouths of more than one of God’s holy men, but their opinions are out of step with the Holy Bible.”

“I didn’t know Radicals read the Bible.”

“I’ve told you before, I am not a Radical.”

“Well, some days you seem full of Radical ideas.”

“Radicals want to change the whole fabric of society. I see places where some changes would be beneficial to everyone, and the treatment of the poor is one such area. That doesn’t make me a confounded radical!”

Starkey was unmoved by Gladstone's denial. “What else does the report say, or is that all of it?”

“That’s not all of it by a long chalk. However, my friend, I am afraid that some I have not read to you will turn you into a sleepless wretch, and I have no feeling to be the cause of your discomfort.”

“Read on, Job. I’m willing to take the risk if you are. Not that I can imagine there is anything that will rob me of my sleep. I’m too honest to miss much sleep. Go one, do your worst.”

Gladstone turned over the pages, folding them back to keep the rest of the report before his eyes before continuing.

“It says, ‘Of the general treatment of the poor in the workhouse, the Overseers have to report that the house is, and has been for a considerable period, crowded out with inmates. This is borne out by the fact that the Overseers counted forty children occupying a single room measuring eight yards by five, and that these children sleep four, five, six, seven, and even ten in one bed. It further says that that thirty females live in another room of similar size, and that fifty adult males have to cram into a room seven and a half yards long by six yards wide.”

“That is overcrowding,” conceded Starkey. “I would not want to be of their number.”

Grunting at his friend’s concession, Gladstone continued to read as if he had not been interrupted.

“The diet of the establishment has been and still is, insufficient, and that four shillings worth of shin of beef, or leg offal, together with forty-two pounds of potatoes, have been made into what the superintendent is pleased to call a soup for a hundred and fifty inmates. The quantity required for the entire household is twenty-seven gallons.”

Starkey did a quick arithmetical calculation in his head before gasping, “There’s more nourishment in my dishwater than there is in that soup! It’s outrageous!”

“Wait, wait, there’s more.
‘It is reported that three gills, which is three-quarters of a pint of this alleged soup, with a quarter of an oaten cake, forms one of the dinners of the establishment. Further, it is told that ten gallons of old milk a day have been made to serve for two meals for around a hundred and thirty individuals for three whole months together, which is little more than one gill per person per day.”

“That’s not enough to keep body and soul together!” declared Starkey, becoming more agitated at every line. “It wouldn’t feed my old dog and keep him in good health, and this is what they give to people!”

“I thought you were too good a man not to be moved by this,” said Gladstone, shaking his paper to rid it of creases, and then continuing.

“The old women are allowed a quarter of a pound of sugar and half an ounce of tea each that has to last them for a whole week.”

“Shocking! Shameful!” Starkey was as close to fuming as he ever came.

“The clothing of the establishment is miserably deficient to the extent that there is no clothing in stock, and so a great proportion of the inmates are obliged to wear their own worn and dirty clothes, and others have little better than rags to cover their nakedness and keep them warm. Instances are known where the nakedness of females has not been covered at all, but they are compelled to be exposed before all and to go about their days in that condition.”

“That’s criminal!” said Starkey, almost shouting.

“The report also says that there are at present only sixty-five blankets fit for use in the whole place and there are seventy-nine beds in need of them. Further, that there are but one hundred and eight sheets for these seventy-nine beds, leaving fifty beds short of a pair each. The result of this unforgiveable … “
“Unforgivable is right!” chimed Starkey.

“…unforgiveable shortage is that there is no change of bed linen whatever. When cleansed, which is rarely, even when death and febrile disease have occupied a bed, the beds have to be stripped, the linen hurried through the wash-tub, dried, and set back on the beds again for the same night.”

“One can only wonder at the effectiveness of such hurried laundry.” Offered an almost exhausted Starkey. “I believed it a rule that the linen from any bed in which a fever case was nursed was to be destroyed by fire without delay. Washing can’t be guaranteed to kill the fever held in the sheets and blankets, not even the hay sacks on which they lay. Is there more?”

“Not much,” said Gladstone, almost sorry to have been the cause of his friends’ increasing distress by his reading of the report.

“It concludes by saying that there are throughout the entire establishment the most unmistakable signs of bad arrangement, shortsightedness, real extravagance, waste of the ratepayers' money, and want of comfort, cleanliness, health and satisfaction amongst the poor. That’s pretty much the sum of the special report.”

“Will it be acted upon, think you?”

“Now that it has reached this level of notoriety, I cannot help but believe that if it is not acted upon it will be yet another cause of civil unrest.”

Starkey seemed almost satisfied at Gladstone’s estimate of consequences in the community to press for satisfaction if the report was ignored.

“Why should it be so, Job? I know the poor are a nuisance, especially when they come around begging, and they do smell so. But why should they be treated like this when there are means available by such as you and me and other ratepayers for their care?”

“The poor have always been poorly treated, and this neglect and insufficiency is the direct result of the doctrine of lesser eligibility that says that those that do not work, for any reason, whether there is work available or not, do not deserve to live as well as those that do, despite most workers having to live on starvation diets from low wages and high food prices. When someone in authority gets this kind of notion in their head, they seem to take on an authority far above their station, and thinking that they are laws unto themselves they make the poor suffer. The superintendent at Huddersfield used the female inmates for his own fleshly lust.”

“Why wasn’t he charged and imprisoned? If he forced them, then it was rape and that is punishable by hanging.”
“Magistrates, constables, and the Ward and Watch do not listen to allegations made by miserable paupers. Being a pauper brands someone as an habitual liar. These wretches have to suffer whatever crimes and indignities are inflicted on them by the devils set to care for them. They have no way of obtaining redress for crimes against them.”

“Your stew has gone cold, Job. I’m not sure that cold dumplings will stick to ribs. They have to be piping hot. Will you feed it to the host’s dog?”

“The host’s dog has no need of my supper. I’ll eat it and get the goodness from it. I don’t care for cold mutton fat, but it will not kill me. It will still be a thousand times better than the slop they feed to these poor wretches.” He shook his paper before folding it to fit back in his jacket pocket and, once it was safely deposited, he set to with a will to eat his spoiled meal issuing grunts of what Starkey supposed were meant to be taken as evidences of satisfaction but with a face that contradicted it. He did not speak until his bowl was quite empty. Then, he addressed his friend.

“Well, Harold. Does any of that change your mind? Less than a mile away people are being treated worse than criminals and here we are living large like kings!”

“As you know, Job, I’m not one to change my mind quickly, and I cannot say whether it has been changed by these revelations, but I will only admit to you that I shall not think of the poor again as I have been accustomed to thinking of them in the past.”

“Well done, Harold,” said Gladstone, smiling in the awareness that Starkey was not beyond the reach of a well argued and profusely illustrated case, and not too stuck in his ways to be unable to change his mind when he felt it was right to change it. He accepted that Starkey was not and never likely to be a full-blooded Radical. Yet he saw that his friend shared the temper of those that were unafraid to look, listen, and learn about things that were not as they should be. Whether he would be moved to take part in activities to change what was bad, and to attempt to right wrongs, remained to be seen.


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